"Do we drink too much?" Sarah and I were running errands when she asked. Sarah had asked this before, and it annoyed me. Only people who drink too much ask themselves if they drink too much. I wanted to tell Sarah to stop bringing it up, but only someone who drinks too much would stop someone from bringing up the subject of drinking too much.
"We drink about the same as Chip and Tom." I said. Chip and Tom were our friends, and sperm donors.
"But we drink every day."
"Drinking every day is good for your heart."
"And it's not like we black out."
"We are drinkers, but we don't drink too much."
And that would end it, until we'd be at the gym, reading magazines on the elliptical machines, and Sarah would ask again.
If she never brought it up, we'd have been fine. I went into work one Friday with a hangover and told my co-workers, "Just because martini, margarita and Mary all start with M-A-R, doesn't mean that I should mix them." My co-workers howled. They were the same co-workers I had been out drinking with the night before. The key to drinking normally is to drink with people who drink more than you—not to continually question yourself, like Sarah.
Assuming that Sarah's question was an accusation, I drank less around her and more after she went to bed. I didn't like drinking in secret because it made me feel like an alcoholic. This is what Sarah was doing to me. I lay on the couch and watched the shadows cast by the headlights of passing cars slide across the ceiling. I had been trying to get pregnant for a year. Twice a month, Chip would ejaculate his wonder spunk into a baggie, which Sarah would extract with a syringe and insert into my uterus. Chip's semen was top shelf: fast, lean, bursting with sperm. The doctor had read us the results of Chip's semen analysis with a jealous enthusiasm, as if they were winning lottery numbers.
That left me as the problem.
Driving to Sam's Club on an extended lunch hour, my co-worker Sylvia told me she had been sober for 14 years. This surprised me, given her driving: she blocked intersections, swore at pedestrians and honked at cars. I would have thought 14 years of sobriety conferred some degree of sang froid on a person.
I was at Sam's to stock up on red wine for a dominoes party Sarah and I were throwing, and Sylvia on her office stash of Perrier and Diet Coke. While Sylvia headed off to the skids of bottled water, I picked among the wines crates, searching out the cheapest Pinot Noirs. My criteria were the lowest price with the prettiest label. I liked the wood of the crates and the way the vineyard's logo was burned onto the outside. Except for the fluorescent lighting, the massive ductwork and adjacent tables overflowing with back-to-school cupcakes, I could have been in a wine cellar in France.
Sylvia obtained her drinks quickly and walked alongside me asking about the party: who was coming, would there be food, how do you play dominoes? Sylvia is either hard of hearing, or doesn't listen, so when I told her we were serving hummus and guacamole, she said: "Drumsticks and manicotti?"
"Hummus," I said, "Guacamole."
"Drumsticks and guacamole. Sounds good."
It was too much, talking to Sylvia and looking through the wine at the same time. I turned and faced Sylvia, so she would hear: "Does it bother you, standing in the middle of all this wine?" I imagined that living without alcohol meant a lifetime of fighting off temptation. Sam's wine section must be an alcoholic's nightmare.
"No," she said.
Had she heard correctly? But I saw it; Sylvia could have been standing in the liverwurst section, for all the sway the wine had on her. I, however, wanted to curl up in one of the boxes, preferably the one with the prettiest label.
"After a while you don't notice alcohol," she said.
"Huh," it seemed unbelievable.
"It would surprise you how much Perrier with lemon is like a good glass of wine."
A completely random comparison, I thought. Then I spotted it: an $8 Pinot Noir—ta ting!
Do we drink too much? When we first began inseminating, I wouldn't drink the week before insemination. I read that sobriety created a more favorable climate for pregnancy. As the months wore on, I decreased my non-drinking by a few days a week until I wasn't not drinking at all. A work friend told me not to worry. She didn't remember having sex on the night she conceived, she was so drunk. When her doctor told her she was pregnant, she told him that was impossible.
Our neighbors also recalled the night they got pregnant. "We were in Jamaica and shared a pitcher of margaritas," he said, cradling their massive son in his arms.
"Two pitchers," she said.
So it couldn't be the drinking.
It must be my age. I was 37, two years past the age they say your fertility drops like a boulder.
The fact remained that I had tried to cut down on drinking and couldn't. This buzzed uncomfortably in my brain and distracted me at random times, like during meetings at work. While middle managers drafted publication schedules on white boards, I would look over at Sylvia, who was usually reading a handout pushed right up to her nose. Fourteen years.
"I think I might have a drinking problem."
I was perched on Sylvia's desk and bent over her monitor hoping it would absorb sound. Sylvia heard that one though, and she pushed her chair away from her desk with a huge smile.
"You can come to my Sunday meeting," she said, "It's gay!"
Gay alcoholics. That was going to be a sorry lot. I pictured denim shirts, bad haircuts and tearful stories of softball brawls and being disowned. Though my plan had been to deliberate over my possible drinking problem for at least several weeks, I agreed to attend Sylvia's meeting. Walking back to my desk, I had a strange image of the rows of Herman Miller cubicles collapsing away from me, domino-like.
"You're going to an AA meeting?" Sarah asked.
"Something like that; I'm not exactly sure," I said that night, feigning befuddlement.
"You're going to quit drinking?"
I couldn't imagine not drinking. There was something unfair in the world that alcohol made better. I had aspirations of glory, but I saw other people bandying around in their 40 acres of psychic space while I was squashed in a corner. Invisible. While I did not excel at anything per se, I was well rounded. How many people had completed a marathon or ridden their bike from Chicago to Milwaukee and back in one day? I knew how to clarify butter, operate a printing press, and exchange pleasantries in both German and Spanish. I could change a flat tire and perform CPR. In sixth grade I won The Most Improved medal for swimming. I was a good learner, and somebody noticed. Twenty-five years later, I was still waiting for trophies. Sometimes, when I went out, or even when I stayed in, I was sure this would be the night. I would be discovered. They would be so excited that they finally found me. They had a limousine waiting. How soon could I pack for L.A.? It's hard to sustain a fantasy life without a lot of wine. Why would I want to give that up?
On Sunday I was surprised to walk into a room of gelled, waxed, and manicured people, mostly men, wearing expensive glasses and Abercrombie. They were not sorry. The speaker was female and wore her auburn hair in an up-do. Her eyes shone incandescently blue. She was not sorry. She told us about crashing through the front window of her SUV and lying on the pavement waiting to die. People laughed. The laughter startled me, but there was something funny about it, the way she told it.
After the meeting, people shoved phone numbers toward me. "Call me anytime," they said, though I could not imagine why. I was surrounded by a klatch of well-wishers when the speaker strode over. She thinks I'm hot, I thought.
"How long you been sober?" she bellowed, shoving her hand at me. I held my hand up and she clamped it. I had no idea what she meant. The last time I had been drunk was two months earlier at Sarah's aunt Mary Ellen's Big Sky Montana wedding. I endured the family whitewater rafting trip with a hangover and skipped the post-ceremony bonfire to drink in our hotel room. Do I say two months?
"Eh?" I said instead.
"Your last drink. When did you have your last drink?" I hesitated. Had I had my last drink?
"Last night," I said.
On the way out the door, a woman leaning against a table said, "Crazy isn't it, your first meeting? How do you feel?"
Something in her nonchalance loosened my guard. "Relieved," I said, and burst into tears.
Not drinking was agony. Street noises were louder. There was a clank in the dishwasher I had never heard. The squirrels outside our window made creepy bleating noises as their claws scratched along the bark. Did someone turn up the lights at work? Did our computers always hum like jet planes? Unattached rage whipped through my brain.
"Two weeks! How do you feel?" The people from the Sunday meeting would ask, chomping gum or taking long drags from cigarettes.
"You're feeling things! You're getting better," a short man with big ears grinned. Always grinning, these people. I wondered what it took to be a person who grinned. What did big ears have in his life, or not have in his life, that had him smile so easily? I was not a smiler; I was a person to whom homeless men yelled: "Cheer up honey, it can't be that bad."
I wanted to get better.
"It's time to turn the baby thing over to you," I said to Sarah. "I need to work on myself right now." I waited for Sarah to talk me out of it; instead she left the room to take her temperature. "I'm ovulating in a week," she said, returning with her chart. So much for talking me out of it. Sarah inseminated in October. For Thanksgiving we flew with her parents to Long Island where we stayed with Sarah's cousin Shelley.
On the ride to her house from LaGuardia, I asked Shelley to stop at an upcoming 7-11 for tampons.
"I got a couple Light Days in the bathroom at home, hon" Shelley said, shooting past the 7-11.
"I need the biggest tampon on Long Island, and I need a box of them." I felt smart for saying on Long Island, rather that in Long Island, a localism I picked up at the airport. My insight won me nothing.
"You can be funny sometimes, Mare. Did you know that? Sarah, have you ever noticed that Mary can be funny?"
"I really need you to stop for tampons," I said.
"Shelley, I think you should turn back to the 7-11" Sarah said. Then Shelley did.
Shelley was not impressed that I'd passed the pregnancy baton to Sarah.
"Never, ever give up Mary," Shelley said one morning when we were both up early. "Never." Shelley believes in belief. Jesus visits her in her kitchen and angels guide her toward important decisions. Shelley doesn't believe that angels let you down if you reach for them. "Look at me, Mare: I'm touched by God. God is everywhere. You can have this baby." I had a headache. That Shelley only had caffeine-free Diet Coke didn't help.
Exactly one year from today—the day after Thanksgiving—Shelley's life would turn upside down after her husband would leave to run and errand and not return. When the police would finally inform Shelley that her husband had been arrested on five counts of armed bank robbery, reality as she knew it would collapse. Shelley would need all the angels she could get. For today though, Shelley was still a Long Island housewife with a husband asleep in bed and two boys watching cartoons in the family room. She wanted me to have a perfect family, too.
"Mare, listen to me," she said. "You can't give up. You know that right?"
"God never gives up on us. We only give up on God."
"All you have to do is believe. Look at me: I'm blessed." I did look—tracksuit, French manicure, scrunchy. Shelley moved closer. "Do you think I'm special? No. I believe." She lowered her voice: "Never give up on your dreams."
"I'm not giving up. I'm moving on."
"Mare, the sobriety thing is great, don't get me wrong. I was wondering about you and Sarah at Mary Ellen's wedding, slamming back those chocolate martinis. Love the sobriety hon, but you gotta keep going. I know you want this baby."
"I know you do, don't you?" I put my head in my hands. "I tell you what I'm going to do," Shelley said. "I'm going to make you breakfast. A healthy one. No Diet Coke for you. How does that sound? You like eggs?"
"Let me ask you a question," Shelley said, sliding a plate of toast and an apple toward me. I didn't want to talk about pregnancy anymore. Shelley's face was hovering over mine. All I could see was teeth, tanning salon tan, pores.
"Am I a catch gay?" she said.
"Uh," I prayed for the phone to ring, an angel to appear.
"Would the gays consider me a catch? Because I gotta tell you, I'm getting sick of men."
After four days of Ground Zero, Central Park and communing with angels, Shelley pulled me aside: "Mare," she said, "You didn't by any chance flush your tampons down my toilet did you? My toilet was backed up this morning. I had to call a plumber."
"I did not."
"Of course you didn't. I knew that, but I had to ask, you know."
Shelley dropped us off at LaGuardia. We stood at the curb with our luggage and waved good-bye. "Never give up," Shelley mouthed through her car window. She winked and pulled away.
On the plane Sarah pulled out a book. I looked over at her. "I want to inseminate one more time," I said.
"What about me?"
"We'll both inseminate."
"What if we both get pregnant?"
"It'll be an adventure."
Sarah looked out at the tarmac. "One more time," she said, "That's it."
"How was your first sober holiday?" Sylvia asked back at work.
"A four day pain in the ass."
"Funny—even hostile you sound better."
Sarah inseminated on December 5th. I inseminated on the 10th. Sarah took a pregnancy test. Negative. She set about preparing for her next insemination—meditating, drinking water—oblivious the life flowering within me. I knew I was pregnant. I felt different, like my cells had gone from circular to hexagonal. I didn't tell Sarah this.
I pulled the box of pregnancy tests off the medicine cabinet. Sarah wafted in the bathroom, eyed the box in my hand, and wafted out, a cheery "Feeling lucky?" trailing behind her. "As a matter of fact I am," I said to the bathroom door. So it was that I was alone when the two red lines appeared.
It was epic, like winning the Olympic gold or walking on the moon.
We thought Shelley would be pleased, and called her with the news.
"Oh my God! Tell me one thing, Mare—it happened in my house, didn't it? I'm telling you, this house is blessed."
"How could it have happened at your house?"
"You brought the sperm to my house. That was a great idea—my house is blessed, you know."
Brought the sperm with us! I snorted, picturing us at airport security, plopping a Caution: Live Specimen container of dry ice-packed vials of semen on the conveyor belt. That would go over well in post-9/11 New York. Plus, didn't Shelley remember accusing me of stopping up her toilet with the tampons she barely allowed me to buy—how could I have gotten pregnant while menstruating? I was rolling around a semi-nice way of telling Shelley she was out of her mind when something hit me. It had happened at Shelley's house, in a way. Flying into LaGuardia, I had given up getting pregnant. Flying out of LaGuardia. I wanted to give pregnancy one last try. It was Shelley, channeling all that dwelt within her home, who made my pregnancy happen.
"It happened at your house," I admitted.
"I knew it!"
I took a swallow of Perrier. It was velvety in my mouth—almost like a good wine.
About the author:
Mary Bowers lives in Chicago where she works as a graphic designer. She is currently working on a novel, "The Second Whack," about a teenager's search for her anonymous sperm donor.
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